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The Enduring Charm of Currier & Ives
by Bob Brooke


On Jan. 13, 1840, the steamboat Lexington caught fire while en route from New York to Stonington, Conn. Only a handful of the 140 passengers and crew survived. Three days later, a realistic picture of the tragedy appeared in The. Extra Sun, a subsection of the New York Sun.. Acknowledged to be the first published newspaper illustration, the Awful Conflagration of the Steam Boat "Lexington" in Long Island Sound made the firm of N. Currier an overnight success.

Probably no other medium preserved life as it was in the 19th century as did the faithful and colorful prints of Currier and Ives. From 1834 to 1907, their lithography shop produced in excess of one million prints of American scenes, which included more than 7500 different titles. They not only sold them successfully in great numbers to the public, but left behind fond images that are highly collectible today.

The American middle class became the firm's primary audience. Their prints stressed the wholesome things like "ships and trains, animals,, architecture, current and historical events, and particularly outdoor scenes.

Nathaniel Currier—Young Lithographer
At the age of 15, Nathaniel Currier went to work as an apprentice for the first successful American lithographers, William and John Pendleton., where he learned this revolutionary new printing process.

In 1833, 20-year-old Nathaniel Currier, now an accomplished lithographer, moved from Boston to Philadelphia to do contract work for M.E.D. Brown, a noted engraver and printer. Brown hired Currier to prepare lithographic stones of scientific images for the American Journal of Sciences and Arts. After completing the contract work in 1834, Currier traveled to New York City to work once again for his mentor John Pendleton, who was now operating his own shop located at 137 Broadway. Soon after the reunion, Pendleton expressed an interest in returning to Boston and offered to sell his print shop to Currier. Currier didn’t have the resources to buy the shop, but he found another local printer by the name of Stodart and together they bought Pendleton's business.

The firm ‘Currier & Stodart' specialized in "job" printing. They produced many different types of printed items, most notably music manuscripts for local publishers. By 1835, Stodart was frustrated that the business wasn’t making enough money and he ended the partnership, taking his investment with him. With little more than some lithographic stones, and a talent for his trade, Currier set up shop in a temporary office at 1 Wall Street.

Currier continued as a job printer and duplicated everything from music sheets to architectural plans. He experimented with portraits, disaster scenes and memorial prints, and anything that he could sell to the public from tables in front of his shop. During 1835 he produced a disaster print, “Ruins of the Planter's Hotel, New Orleans, which fell at two O'clock on the Morning of the 15th of May 1835, burying 50 persons, 40 of whom Escaped with their Lives.” The public had a thirst for newsworthy events, and since newspapers of the time didn’t include pictures, Currier gave the public a new way to "see" the news.

Although the portrayal of the Steamboat Lexington launched his career, Nathaniel Currier's earliest disaster print is believed to be the Ruins of the Planter's Hotel, New Orleans. Currier also experimented with portraits and memorial prints, including a tribute to President William Henry Harrison, who died in office in 1841.

James Ives—Bookkeeper
The success of the Lexington print launched his career nationally. In 1841, he hired James Ives, the 21-year- old brother-in-law of his brother Charles. A native New Yorker, Ives was a self-taught artist and professional bookkeeper. Ives quickly set out to improve and modernize Currier’s bookkeeping methods. He reorganized the firm's sizable inventory, and used his artistic skills to streamline the firm's production methods. Currier taught Ives the lithography trade.

Currier also hired his artistically inclined brother, Lorenzo, to travel west and make sketches of the new frontier as material for future prints. Charles worked for the firm on and off over the years, and invented a new type of lithographic crayon which he patented and named the Crayola.

By 1857, Currier had become so dependent on Ives’ skills and initiative that he offered him a full partnership in the firm and appointed him general manager. The two men chose the name ‘Currier & Ives' for the new partnership, and became close friends.

Prints for the People
Promoting themselves as “Publishers of Cheap and Popular Pictures,” Currier & Ives sold prints, which they advertised as “colored engravings for the People," ranging from 20 cents to $6, depending on the size and subject matter. Larger prints sold for $3 to $6.

Customers could select prints from large bins that lined the inside walls of their Nassau Street store. They wholesaled smaller prints to peddlers and other outlets for as little as 6 to 12 cents each. Over the years the print sizes varied from just under 3 x 5 five inches to 18 x 27 inches and larger. Topics could be as mundane as fruits and flowers or as current as the Civil War and scenes of the Wild West.

Since neither Currier or Ives were professional artists, they purchased drawings from others for $1 to $10. There were countless artists. Some remain unknown. Among the most prolific artists were Francis Flora (Fanny) Palmer, Louis Maurer, A.F. (Arthur Fitzwilliam) Tait and Thomas Worth.

Part of the their great appeal of Currier and Ives prints in the second half of the 19th-century was their coloring. Typically, talented artists prepared original drawings, which others then transferred to stone lithographs. Additional workers finally hand-colored the prints.

The company's lithographic process first produced a black and white image, which was later colorized in assembly-line fashion.

Currier & Ives first produced their prints as a black and white lithographic image in a building at 33 Spruce Street in Philadelphia where they occupied the third, fourth and fifth floors. Hand-operated printing presses occupied the third floor. The fourth floor found the artists, lithographers and the stone grinders at work. The fifth floor housed the coloring department.

The colorists, mostly German immigrant girls, came to America with some formal artistic training. Currier & Ives paid these colorists $1 per 100 small folios (a penny a print) and $1 per one dozen large folios. Each colorist added a single color to a print. As a colorist finished applying their color, she passed the print down the line to the next colorist to add their color. The colorists worked from a master print displayed above their table, which showed where to place the proper colors. A touch-up artist sat at the end of the table, checking the prints for quality and touching-in areas that may have been missed as the print passed down the line. During the Civil War, demand for prints became so great that Currier and Ives developed coloring stencils to speed up production.

The partners seldom identified the artists on the prints, themselves. Exceptions were the legendary Thomas Nast, George Henry Durrie, who specialized in travel and sporting scenes, and Francis Flora Palmer. She came to the United States from England in 1840 and became one of Currier and Ives' most prolific artists. During her first year she turned out 12 full renderings, and between 1860 and 1868, she was credited with more than 100 lithographs, including “Sleepy Hollow Church,” “ The Village Blacksmith,” “Early Winter,” “The Rocky Mountains,” and “Wooding Up on the Mississippi.”

The basic routine never varied although the topics would range from “Trolling for Blue Fish” to the “Kiss Me Quick” romance of a young couple. And the combination seldom failed.

In 1872 the Currier and Ives catalog proudly proclaimed:"... our Prints have become a staple article... in great demand in every part of the country... In fact without exception, all that we have published have met with a quick and ready sale."

Currier finally retired in 1880, and Ives ran the business until his death in 1895

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